Feast

As summer begins I start to see tips for keeping the kids occupied and staving off boredom. One of the most common suggestions? Send the kids to the backyard. Once they’re exhausted from getting sweaty and dirty, then they can have some screen time.

El Paso is not the place for the “send the kids outside” advice. First, I’d have to go outside with my children, because there are deadly creatures lurking under rocks and plants and I need to be on-hand to draw a circle around a fresh snakebite so the hospital can measure the progress of the venom racing through their tiny bodies. Second, the strong breeze you feel will deposit a handful of orange desert dust into every exposed orifice with each violent gust.

Also, the sun in this region will set you on fire in ten minutes. Outdoor play requires a hefty layer of sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses. Don’t forget the bottles of water to help you survive four percent humidity in 112º heat!

When we commit to an outing, it takes planning. This weekend we attended an event at an orthodox church across town, called the Middle East Feast*. There was a large building with air conditioning, and two tents with industrial fans to shield us from Sun City’s oppressive heat. Hubs recommended this particular event because he knows how much I love Middle Eastern food and how hard it is to find in El Paso, so we loaded everyone in the car for falafel and fun.

The food was good, but not great. Archer enjoyed his lamb kabob and pilaf, and Jack chowed down on hummus and pita. My gyro was good, but the falafel was just okay. The expectations for tasty middle eastern cuisine are fairly low in a city where Mexican food is the undisputed king. There were dance troops, snow cones, a bounce house (in direct sunlight, so no one played on it), and most importantly, a bake table.

In between David Sedaris books, I read almost exclusively historical fiction, and I tend to choose novels that take place in non-western regions (it’s enough already with the Tudors, seriously). My favorite books, the ones that cemented my love of true-ish fiction, take place in Egypt. While the focus isn’t food or culture, the breadcrumbs authors leave that shed light on the atmosphere of the time make reading the books a more immersive experience.

There is nothing sexier than Egyptian royalty eating dessert. Everything is toasted, sprinkled with nuts, filled with dates, and dripping in honey. While the bite-sized delicacies are restrained compared to, say, the Cheesecake Factory’s slabs of cream cheese topped with whip, the textures are more aggressive than typical desserts in the homeland. Imagine a frosted cake or scoop of ice cream; while the flavors can vary, the texture is pretty much one note. Even if your ice cream has cookies in it, they’re undoubtedly soggy from sitting in the freezer surrounded in custard.

The sweets from the Middle East are a carnival of crunchy, chewy, brittle, and crumbly. Flakes of phyllo filled with toothsome nuts drenched in honey to make baklava, while rolled phyllo filled with ground pistachios makes crispy and crumbly portable baklava. The tender, buttery dough of maamoul cookies – baked to celebrate Eid – is stuffed with chopped dried apricots or dates. Where an equivalent western treat might use preserves, these use dried fruit for a hearty chew at the center, and the ones we brought home from the feast had walnuts in them as well.

Of everything I sampled at the feast, my very favorite was namoura. After a quick internet search, this delicacy appears to go by several names, depending on who makes it. It looks like it’s called namoura in Lebanon, and hareesa or basboosa in other areas, but the recipes are very similar: semolina cake topped with an almond and soaked in rose water syrup. Using semolina instead of flour makes a dense and crispy cake, and some recipes use almond flour/meal as well. Instead of the syrup making the cake soggy, like the milk soak in tres leches (which is divine and available at every store in town), it adds a sweetness and moisture to an otherwise crumbly cake that balances the textures perfectly. The hint of rose flavor gives this two-bite treat an ethereal, luxurious quality, like you’re experiencing a flavor only meant for gods and kings. The floral note is nothing like lavender shortbread, which can be a soapy punch in the face. It’s delicate, so you don’t actually taste flowers, but you smell roses while you chew.

Crumbly, sticky, dense, floral, nutty, crunchy. Food porn at it’s very best. While not particularly healthy, I don’t think namoura would be impossible to adapt to fit our relatively new Paleo diet since many of the recipes already use almond flour, but if it came out any less wonderful than the cakes we had yesterday, it would absolutely break my heart. Some things are best left in their original state, to be eaten in a palace, draped in a linen shift, reclined on ornate pillows, licking syrup from bejeweled fingers.

Recommended reading:

Nefertiti 

The Heretic Queen

Cleopatra’s Daughter

The Memoirs of Cleopatra

 

*I am aware that the “Middle East” is a vast and diverse region, but for simplicity I’ve decided to use the broad term used by the folks who planned the event.

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